(CNN) -- Looking back, I find I've written more than 350 film reviews over the past 12 months. That's a lot of time sitting in the dark, especially when you're challenged to whittle them all down to the best 20 hours or so for the annual top 10 list.
WALL-E ponders a Rubik's Cube in the Pixar film about his life on a wasted Earth.
You surely don't need me to tell you this hasn't been a vintage year. Even so, there are no shortage of films I'm glad to have seen and would be quick to recommend.
Many of them -- most, even -- have not had the benefit of huge marketing machines, free media hype or long bookings in the multiplexes. And this maybe one area where the critic does have a useful role to play: getting the word out.
For example, Juan Antonio Bayona's fine Spanish horror movie "The Orphanage" was the kind of movie you could easily miss. A classical ghost story on the face of it, it gradually revealed hidden depths, an acute sense of grief and loss and -- who would have thought it? -- a subtle, wrenching spin on "Peter Pan."
If not for the critics, would Danny Boyle's exuberant Oscar front-runner "Slumdog Millionaire" have stood a chance of making its mark? Or such imaginative non-fiction films as the (literally) suspenseful "Man on Wire," the all-too-timely, animated "Waltz with Bashir" and Guy Maddin's dolorous memoir "My Winnipeg" (notable for a last appearance by the great femme fatale Ann Savage, who died just last week)? Watch some bombs that got no help from critics or audiences »
This year, for whatever reason, much of the most exciting work has come out of left field. An obvious example would be the year's two Gus Van Sant movies. The big-budget biopic "Milk" has obvious Oscar potential: It's a true story about an inspiring character who tied himself to a cause and paid the highest price for it.
"Milk" is a fine film, with outstanding performances from Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and James Franco. Perhaps it is also "important" in the ongoing struggle against discrimination. But if you put it beside Van Sant's independently made portrait of a mixed-up Portland, Oregon, teenager, "Paranoid Park," it's obvious which project truly engaged him as an artist. The latter is a complex creative response to the world and the difficulty of negotiating our own space within it.
It's too bad that a good many of the more groundbreaking films have scarcely been seen outside of festivals and a few cosmopolitan art houses: Jose Luis Guerin's dazzling "In the City of Sylvia," for instance, or the ecstatic Indonesian musical "Opera Jawa" or Lance Hammer's soulful U.S. indie, "Ballast." I doubt there has been a more perceptive movie about relationships this year than Hong Sang-soo's "Woman on the Beach" or a more inspired cop thriller than Johnnie To's lunatic Hong Kong mystery, "Mad Detective." (Movie fans, I hope you add these to your Netflix queues.) What do you think of all these lists? Send your No. 1 to iReport.com.
You can believe Anne Hathaway gives the best performance by an actress this year in "Rachel Getting Married" if you want to, but you should also see Juliette Binoche in "The Flight of the Red Balloon," Emmanuelle Devos in "A Christmas Story," Michelle Williams in "Wendy and Lucy" or even veteran opera singer Galina Vishevskaya in "Alexandra." Many good films -- too many -- are under the radar nowadays.
All that said, I'd go to the mat for Mickey Rourke as Randy the Ram in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," surely the most heartening and unexpected comeback of the year, in a film with intriguing ideas of its own about the elusive boundaries between performing and being.
It was genuinely refreshing to see Robert Downey Jr. on such a high in "Iron Man" and sending up his own vocation so mercilessly in "Tropic Thunder." And I'll stand by my prediction from July that Heath Ledger will win a posthumous Oscar for his astonishing performance as the Joker in "The Dark Knight" and deserve it, too. More than enough has been written about Christopher Nolan's morbid magnum opus, but Ledger's mesmerizing tour de force will withstand all the praise -- and the backlash.
Even so, as the dust settles, of all the summer blockbusters I know the two I'll watch again with unalloyed pleasure are Guillermo Del Toro's underrated, idiosyncratic "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," and Andrew Stanton's enchanting, universally praised movie about an amorous trash compactor. Maybe it's a sentimental choice, but for me, "WALL-E" was easily the outstanding movie of the year.
So, the list:
Yes, the second half is merely really, really good, but the nearly wordless first 40 minutes suggests unsuspected affinities between Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick.
"Encounters at the End of the World"
The documentary of the year also has an apocalyptic theme. Werner Herzog visits Antarctica and discovers we're all on thin ice.
"In the City of Sylvia"
A man returns to the city to find the girl that got away. Jose Luis Guerin fashions a remarkable mazy quasi-musical out of looks and glances.
Maybe the most prescient film of the year, Jia Zhangke looks at China as a superpower in the making -- and the unmaking -- as the towns along the Three Gorges Dam project are dismantled brick by brick.
Ed Harris was obviously born to make Westerns. Too unpretentious for its own good, this was classical American moviemaking at its best -- better, incidentally, than Clint Eastwood's revisionist riff on gun lore in "Gran Torino."
Darren Aronofsky's authentically downbeat movie is distinguished by its sympathy for the muscle men and strippers who never got beyond the first rung of the American Dream.
"Let the Right One In"
Preteen vampires. This is what "Twilight" would be if it were five times better, Swedish and told from the point of view of a lonely 12-year-old boy.
This poetic teen art film is the most fluent and coherent of Gus Van Sant's experimental works. Part crime mystery, part coming-of-age story, it's positively overflowing with burnished imagery and adolescent turmoil.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
We know there are no second acts to American lives, but Benjamin takes Fitzgerald at his word. Brad Pitt ages with uncommon grace in David Fincher's fantastical love story, the ultimate slow dissolve.
Jean Claude Van Damme -- the Muscles from Brussels -- pulls a Mickey Rourke, playing himself (brilliantly) in a Belgian bank robbery thriller written and directed by first timer Mabrouk El Mechri. What late nights were invented for.
And the worst ...
Then there are those films that make you lament losing two hours of your life, even if you have a job to do. These are listed in reverse order, from (relatively) least-worst to the most egregious offender of the year:
"The X-Files: I Want to Believe"
This pretentious spiritual non-thriller signaled a sorry end for Scully and Mulder. Still, at least no expense was lavished on what looked like an extended TV special.
"What Happens in Vegas"
Ashton Kutcher steals the washroom door. That's how desperate things get in this total bust, probably the least romantic romantic comedy of the year.
Al Pacino has 88 minutes to live ... yet this mind-bogglingly dumb movie dies agonizingly slowly.
You have to sit through the entirety of Will Smith's soggy new movie to find out just how shameless it is. I'd rather take a bath with a jellyfish.
Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey's vacation snapshots would have been more amusing than this torpid exotic adventure. Oh, wait, these WERE the vacation snapshots ...
Just because Baz Luhrmann loves old Hollywood movies doesn't mean he can make one. Where's Crocodile Dundee when you need him?
A big-budget tech thriller -- apparently suggested by Steven Spielberg himself -- that borrowed from all over but made absolutely no sense.
"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor"
It doesn't get much sloppier than this mummy movie without a mummy. Rachel Weisz made a shrewd choice not to return.
Granted, I hated "300," and "Sin City" left me cold, but at least they had a degree of technical accomplishment to wrap around Frank Miller's puerile pulp fascism. His own movie is just an inept embarrassment.
Michael Haneke is a prodigiously talented filmmaker, but this shot-for-shot American remake of his Austrian thriller was an arrogant, redundant scold and the very worst reason to see a movie all year.
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